Years ago, I read a pet-care book about ways to bond with your dog or cat. One of the tips—so ridiculous—was to write a letter to your pet, telling all the things you like about him (or her). I remember thinking, Are you kidding? Write a letter to my dog? But here I am, writing to you, so what do I know?
Here’s what I know: That lump on your snout is almost certainly cancer. And unless it comes off soon, it’ll spread to your throat and lungs, and that’ll be that. That’s what the vet said 36 hours ago as she handed me an estimate for the cost of the operation. And when I saw the total, I made a face. My initial reaction, dear Dog, was not for you or your health. My initial reaction was: Are you kidding? I spent less on my first car.
If that sounds heartless, you have to remember that I was raised by people who were not sentimental about pets. My mother wasn’t allowed to have them. My father, meanwhile, grew up dirt-poor on a hardscrabble farm where one of the tenets of life apparently was: Don’t get friendly with the animals; you never know when you might have to eat one.
This may explain why they didn’t name any livestock, or even the pets. As a boy, Dad had two dogs and the closest things they had to names were That Dumb Dog and The Other One. And when That Dumb Dog had hip trouble and The Other One went deaf and blind at a young age, there was no going to the vet for surgery or lab tests. There was only a walk in the forest with Dad and a .22 pistol—a walk from which Dad always returned alone.
Luckily for you, Dog, we have a different relationship. I brought you home because your old family abandoned you, left you in a fenced-in yard with no food, water, or shade in the middle of summer. When my kids heard about this, they came to me with big, dewy eyes and made eternal promises to feed and walk you and clean up after you. And then my little girl dropped the A-bomb, clasping my hand in hers and begging in a trembling voice, “Please, Daddy, please save that doggy.”
By that point, you were already a guest of the local animal hospital, where you not only recovered from your neglect, but also charmed the staff with every bat of your big doggy eyes and your tendency to lick everyone and everything. To this day, when I bring you in for a checkup, someone yells “Guess who’s here!” and out they all come, oohing and ahhing with a drippy enthusiasm typically reserved for new puppies, not 50 pounds of dog stuffed into a 40-pound body. Suddenly, it’s the third reel of a Disney movie in there, and you’re the lovable mutt that traveled cross-country to foil the bumbling crooks and save the orphan child who fell down the well.
So as I looked over the estimate, I tried to ignore the pleading eyes of the hospital staff. Instead, I thought of an incident that occurred not too long after you came to live with us.
My little girl and I were taking you for a walk. You were ignoring us, intent on sniffing and cocking your leg on everything. We had walked into an unfamiliar neighborhood that day, so I didn’t know that we were nearing the home of The Jerk who lets his Mean Dog run free. And I didn’t see the Mean Dog until he was closing on my 3-year-old daughter.
She was looking at ladybugs on the sidewalk and never saw this huge, slavering dog charging at her. And before I could complete one step towards her, I felt the leash rip free from my hand, and you were already there, standing rigid as a statue between my daughter and the Mean Dog. Gone was the fat, dopey mutt, charmer of the animal hospital staff. Your ears were flat against your head, your back bristled like a bear’s, barking in this sharp, no-screwing-around yap I’d never heard before.
Then I came running up, the Mean Dog was outnumbered, and he ran to his backyard. You sniffed my daughter all over, gave her a sloppy kiss, then made an enormous, um, deposit, right there on the lawn.
It could have gone so many ways. That dog could have bitten my little girl, chased her into the busy street, or scared her into some kind of anxiety disorder. Even a heartless miser could see how, in a single moment, you saved me far more (in therapy bills alone!) than it will cost to have a little lump taken off your snout. But it’s not about money, is it?
In the years since you came to live with us, you have enriched my family’s life by an order too high to calculate, a fact that dawned on me after our encounter that day. Talk about a scene from a Disney movie! My daughter was giddy, her little arm around your big neck, telling me what a Good Doggy you were. And that was only the beginning.
Although friendly to women and kids, you bark and carry on mercilessly when any man enters the house, taking care to give a pointed sniff at a foot, a jacket sleeve, or the seat of his pants. Your message is clear: “That’s what I’m going for, buddy. Step out of line and you’ll see.”
And whenever I can’t sleep and stare out the window and worry about the future, you come over and lean slightly into me, like we’re sitting on a bus that just went into a curve, just enough contact to remind me you’re there. A little thing, but if it weren’t in my life, I would miss it terribly.
So it was all of two seconds after looking at the vet’s estimate that I scheduled your surgery, which was this morning. The vet was apologetic about the cost of the operation. “It’s OK,” I told her. “Anyway, it’s no skin off my nose.”
Then I looked down at you, thinking about your future, doing what I can to preserve it, which is my job. And there you were doing yours: surrounded by the adoring hospital staff, but still taking a moment to give me a smile and a wag of your tail.
I hope you’re well, Dog. We took a walk in a dark forest today, and I returned alone. But I swear, I’ll be back to bring you home.
Love, The Man
P.S. The lump turned out to be totally benign. My dog is alive and well and fatter than ever. Wish I could say the same for my wallet.